Canadian National Logo

Canadian National Logo

The Birth of The ’Worm’ Logo?

Allan Fleming conceived and designed his famous logo for the Canadian National Railway Company back in 1959. People have since dubbed it the ‘worm’ logo, a seemingly unflattering moniker that refers to CN, the seamlessly conjoined pair of two letters. In reality, the logo was warmly embraced back when it premiered, and today’s design community continues to praise it individually and through collective polling as a kind of brilliant and meticulous updating to more than a century of varied insignia.

Fleming worked at the typographic firm Cooper and Beatty as a 30-year-old upstart who understood the public’s view of the Canadian National as an “old-fashioned” and “backward” institution. This was a perception backed and borne out by survey data and one that CN’s head of public relations, Dick Wright, was working to change.

Part of the divided solution involved a reinvention of the Canadian National’s visual presence from the ground up — including a directive to Fleming to create an entirely new and upgraded logo. The company needed something that would become appealing and familiar to the customers that had become distant to them. It needed to be attractive and persuasive — a design that would perhaps draw inspiration from previous iterations of the logo, but was ultimately tasked with replacing them. The decision eventually became clear: no more of that overused maple leaf.

The symbol that replaced it reportedly emerged onto Fleming’s in-flight beverage napkin on a plane trip from New York. Under the direction of his superiors, the image yielded to thinner lines and, in its simplicity, eventually met the world as the strikingly sleek and profoundly uncomplicated visual improvement the company was looking for.

Fleming explained the controversial decision to forgo any imagery besides the simplicity of the letters themselves. “A literal drawing in 1944 of an object — even a plant leaf — looks in 1954 as if it was drawn in 1944. After five, ten or fifteen years, that symbol would have to be revised. In fact, CN itself has had that history up to now — of constantly revising its trademark bit by bit — and every time it has been revised the one before it is out of date, and it costs a lot of money and a lot of hard work to keep ahead of the game.”

Simple Movement – From Point A to Point B

The logo’s unbroken line communicates a clear and unambiguous concept — the linear movement from point A to point B. Fluid motion and interconnection. But in Fleming’s words, perhaps as a credit to his bosses, “The single thickness stroke is what makes the symbol live. Anything else would lack the immediacy and vigour.”

The logo has gone virtually unchanged and is consistently heralded as an icon of modern design by professionals in the field who make it their lives work to study and obsess over these kinds of innovations.

Even at the time, Fleming himself recognized the merits of his own handiwork. “I think this symbol will last for 50 years at least. I don’t think it will need any revision because it is designed with the future in mind.”

Here we are many decades later, and the logo just turned 51. Fleming was right.